U.S. officials promoting media freedom abroad censor information for American public

BBG Watch Commentary

Time For Transparency Message Showing Ethics And FairnessThe U.S. government’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB)–the administrative arm of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) media agency for informing and influencing foreign audiences–censors selection of articles for its “Media Highlights” distributed mostly to Americans who pay the salaries of IBB officials.

While censorship by IBB public relations experts is not complete, articles by mainstream American reporters and scholars which are critical of the U.S. international broadcasting bureaucracy often don’t make it into the publicly distributed “Media Highlights.” IBB sends out these “Media Highlights” to subscribers by email. They can also be seen online on the BBG’s official website.

To add insult to injury, most of what is deemed not appropriate or safe for average Americans to read, can be viewed by top agency officials in secret emails. As in the former Soviet Union, IBB bureaucrats distribute some of these “less than desirable” articles only to a small group of IBB officials and members of the BBG board.

Such double standards in how government officials communicate with the public, common in totalitarian and authoritarian systems, are dangerous in a democracy. Most BBG board members are reported to be opposed to this practice, but they have been unable to force their executive staff to modify it, sources told BBG Watch.

Encouraged and protected by IBB Director Richard Lobo, these officials are becoming more and more defiant, ignore BBG members, and refuse demands for transparency. At this time, BBG members are powerless because they lack quorum due to unexplained and prolonged absence of BBG’s Interim Presiding Governor Michael Lynton. In his absence, IBB executive staff can do whatever they want if IBB Director agrees. At least for the federal entities managed by the BBG, the remaining five board members cannot force Director Lobo to do anything he does not want to do. He seems to be happy with what his staff is doing.

It should be pointed out that national security or privacy considerations have nothing to do with selecting articles for inclusion in the BBG “Media Highlights.” They are not considered classified, even in the version distributed to insiders. In fact, articles kept from wider distribution often show how actions and inaction of IBB officials are harmful to U.S. international broadcasting and may threaten U.S. national security.

Officials limit the distribution of such articles to a small inside group of top executives. Not even all rank and file BBG employees get to see them unless they find them online on their own, including on the BBG Watch website. But we have also learned that an agency official tried to influence an independent American blogger not to re-post articles from BBG Watch. The blogger refused the request. But the fact that it was made shows that top IBB executives have adopted a culture of censorship which is destroying the agency, its reputation and employee morale. Americans should be worried.

In the Soviet Union, such privileged groups of party officials were the executive staff of the Politburo. They were responsible for keeping Politburo members informed about what was going on. But the Broadcasting Board of Governors is a U.S. government agency set up by democratically elected representatives of the American people. Americans are entitled to know how their taxpayer dollars are being spent. This money should not be used to distribute censored and misleading information. Any deliberately censored information is misleading.

In fact, not even BBG members may be getting everything they need to know from their staff. The Broadcasting Board of Governors has a bipartisan board composed of nine individuals nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate (one of them, Secretary of State Kerry, is an ex officio member). They are entitled to accurate, unbiased and complete information from the agency’s permanent bureaucracy. But while they apparently do get the secret media list, it is not at all certain whether all critical articles make it into the secret emails to BBG members. We are told that board members are growing increasingly frustrated with IBB bureaucracy. It is a known fact that IBB senior staffers have been trying to keep BBG members in the dark about various issues and are ignoring some of their directives. Many believe that they are in an open rebellion against their bosses.

As incredible as it may sound, it appears that in some respects Soviet leaders may have been in fact kept somewhat better informed by their bureaucracy than Broadcasting Board of Governors members are by theirs. While Soviet citizens were also not deemed trustworthy enough to get the whole truth in Soviet newspaper articles, Politburo members did receive extensive secret transcripts of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Voice of America (VOA), BBC and other Western broadcasts which were highly critical of these self-appointed dictators. We do know for sure that the American public gets a shorter, “censored” version of media articles from these IBB officials charged with promoting media freedom abroad. We don’t know if BBG members get all the articles that they and all other Americans should see if taxpayers’ money is going to be used for this purpose.

Dangers of the Repeal of the Smith-Mundt Act If Current IBB Officials Remain in Charge

Ironically, the same IBB officials who censor information distributed to the American public are in charge of managing RFE/RL and VOA as these media outlets prepare programs for overseas audiences. But thanks to the recent repeal of some of the provisions of the Smith-Mundt Act, these government bureaucrats will soon be allowed to distribute Voice of America and other programs in the United States. It is more than likely that in addition to VOA news and other programs, these IBB officials will distribute to unsuspecting Americans their own propaganda.

Americans also have a good reason to worry about news and information being censored or manipulated by government officials charged with their distribution if these are the same officials who already censor such information.

BBG Watch has learned that to justify the censorship of their “Media Highlights,” IBB officials keep telling those who ask that they do not list articles which appear in blogs, even blogs of very respectable publications and institutions, such as National Review and The Heritage Foundation.

But the claim of not listing blog articles is patently untrue, as we have seen numerous articles in the public BBG “Media Highlights” taken from blogs rather than mainstream media publications. These were not surprisingly mostly those articles that made IBB bureaucrats look good, some of them clearly initiated by the agency’s public relations staff.

IBB officials certainly set a miserable example of how a media freedom agency ought to operate and open themselves up to charges of hypocrisy. While programs for overseas audiences are not subject to this kind of internal censorship by the Office of Communications and External Affairs and other IBB executives, some of these officials exercise enormous power which has been shown to stifle honest reporting by agency’s journalists. Coverage of the Radio Liberty crisis in Russia has been inadequate and biased. Top IBB officials have also failed to alert BBG members to the growing controversy over the firing of dozens of Radio Liberty journalists.

Reasons for reported self-censorship by some of the agency’s journalists have been traced to the fear of retaliation from the management. Top IBB officials have been known to eliminate programs they don’t like and phase out jobs of journalists they don’t like. Their desire for power and central control over information and budgets is insatiable, which explains their tendency to censor what American taxpayers and their Congressional representatives can see. It appears that they will do almost anything to avoid bad publicity.

What is even more dangerous is that the same officials are now writing regulations on how they plan to distribute their agency’s programs to the American public after previous legal restrictions on such domestic distribution have been lifted with the recent modification of the Smith-Mundt Act.

Americans should demand that these officials be required to apply the same Voice of America Charter requirements for accuracy and objectivity, not just to VOA news and other programs, but to all of their public relations output as well. IBB officials need to told that censorship of any kind is prohibited. This is critical now that restrictions on domestic U.S. distribution of programs have been lifted.

This continuation of Soviet media techniques by IBB officials is embarrassing for an agency claiming to be supporting media freedom abroad. It is also futile.

Those interested in U.S. international broadcasting have probably already seen these “inappropriate” or “dangerous” articles online or got them delivered to their email boxes using Goggle Search. They can easily see that IBB is manipulating access to information for those interested in U.S. international broadcasting issues, which includes American taxpayers who pay their salaries, members of Congress and Congressional staffers.

Examples

Two significant recent articles did not make the official BBG’s “Media Highlights” list. We are not talking here about articles by unknown bloggers, but well known and highly respected scholars and reporters who have previously written and published about U.S. international broadcasting.

The public relations office did not think this analysis by The Heritage Foundation scholar Dr. Helle Dale was worth sharing with the American public:

Congress to Broadcasting Agency: Is Anyone Listening to Us?“, Helle Dale, The Foundry, The Heritage Foundation, April 18, 2013.

U.S. international broadcasting strategy again landed under congressional scrutiny in Wednesday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, a Heritage Foundation scholar Helle Dale reported.

“Representative Brad Sherman (D–CA) wanted to know why the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) ignored the congressional mandate to keep broadcasting to Pakistan in several local languages. In spite of a specific $1.5 million appropriation for broadcasting to Pakistan, everything has been cut except programming in Urdu. “You would not dream of broadcasting to Los Angeles in only one language,” said Sherman.”

It appears that the IBB Office of Communications and External Affairs does not want those interested in U.S. international broadcasting issues to know what Representative Brad Sherman and other members of Congress may think about agency officials.

The Office of Communications and External Affairs also did not include in the “Media Highlights” an article in the Foreign Affairs Journal blog, “Moscow on the Potomac” by Judy Bachrach, which described a bizarre attempt to ban a BBG member from an event honoring Masha Gessen.

Moscow on the Potomac, Judy Bachrach, World Affairs Journal, April 15, 2013.

Most BBG Members Appalled by Staff

Most of the remaining board members (only five out of nine are left, with the Interim Presiding Governor Michael Lynton being absent from board meetings for the past four months) are appalled by this double standard approach to public relations, but they appear incapable of changing it due to resistance from IBB Director Richard Lobo who is also opposing other reforms sought by BBG members, agency sources told BBG Watch.

These might be the same officials who tried to ban an independent American reporter from the UN. The same ones who for months issued press releases deceiving members of Congress, Congressional staffers, American public, and probably BBG members as well, into believing that “Parazit,” the popular Voice of America satirical television program to Iran, was still on the air when in fact they knew that it was discontinued. The same ones who ignored their own study by a respected Russian media scholar who pointed out that the VOA Russian Service had developed a “pro-Putin” bias. The same ones who ignored signs of crisis at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and failed to alert BBG members. The same ones who in numerous Office of Personnel Management (OPM) employee surveys have been rated the worst managers in the federal government. The same ones responsible for the lowest employee morale among all similar federal agencies, according to the same OPM surveys. These are the same officials who wanted to end or reduce programs to China, Tibet, Russia, and to Chechnya, the homeland of the Boston terror bombings suspects.

Sources told us that board members have warned Director Lobo that he and his staff open the agency, which is charged with promoting media freedom abroad, to accusations of using double standards. These warnings, we are told, have been ignored. The latest news is that they failed to make a full audio recording of the last informal (Michael Lynton did not participate) BBG board meeting, as they were required to do. We are told that only a partial recording is available and that there is a gap or gaps in what was recorded. The apparently partial recording has not yet been released to the public and no reason was provided. Did one of the IBB officials say something that Americans would find appalling? Perhaps something on how to control information released to the American public or how to limit oversight by the BBG Board and Congress?

Americans have every reason to worry if these officials write and implement regulations on how the government will be distributing news content in the United States. Like former Soviet bureaucrats, they have tasted power and censorship and they like it. BBG members need to remove them from their decision-making positions if the U.S. international broadcasting agency is going to save its reputation, serve audiences in countries without free media, contribute to U.S. national security, and survive.

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